It wasn’t exactly the information age but then no one was complaining. Business ran on the Bell System and postage, while newspapers, radio and TV kept consumers current.
And though barely a blip on most people’s radar, a certain sports item was making headlines in the Big Apple that spring of 1961: Maris & Mantle and their pursuit of Babe Ruth’s hallowed single-season home run mark of 60.
Everyone loves a good race and as it heated-up it began to play in Peoria. The fact it involved a record held by the much loved Bambino made it all the more captivating. The emotions ran the gamut from petty resentment, to hopeful, to simply, ‘Can he do it!?’
Mickey would succumb to injuries (54), Roger achieved the unthinkable (61) and the debate ensued. As quaint as an asterisk seems today it nonetheless does show just how seriously everyone took the sport back in ‘61.
Even at the time, Roger’s milestone may not have been the greatest single-season feat in the annals of Major League Baseball. Likewise, extended streaks that were subject to official scoring (Joe D's 56) or personal discretion (Ripken) will often, upon close inspection, reveal a weak-link in their chains of greatness.
The game’s long, storied history is chock full of special achievements that can keep baseball aficionados debating for hours and even years.
A short list of some other notables:
· Boston Beaneater Hugh Duffy bats .440 and wins the NL Triple Crown in 1894;
· In the same season Billy Hamilton crosses home plate 196 times;
· Christy Mathewson wins 31, posts 1.27 ERA and throws 3 CG-SOs in 1905 WS;
· Ed Walsh wins 40 in 1908 (1.42 / 464 IN / 42 CG) on a White Sox team that batted just .224;
· Ruth’s 1921: .378 BA, 177 R, 16 3B, .846 SLG, 17 SB, 145 BB, 59 HR, 171 RBI, 457 TB;
· Cleveland Indian Joe Sewell strikes out a mere four times in 608 ABs in 1925;
· Rogers Hornsby wins his 2nd Triple Crown in 1925 batting .403 (.401 in 1922);
· AL Leader in HR, BB, R, SLG and OBP, Ted Williams hits .406 with style in 1941;
· Jackie Robinson joins Brooklyn to break baseball’s color barrier and wins ROY in 1947;
· In ‘62, KC Athletics’ Bill Fischer pitches 84.1 consecutive innings without walking a batter;
· Bob Gibson (22-9 / 1.12 / 13 SHO) & Denny McLain (31-6 / 28 CG) go pitch crazy in ‘68.
· Dodgers’ Orel Hershiser pitches 59 consecutive scoreless innings in 1988 in leading his team to a World Series title over the heavily-favored Athletics in five.
Nevertheless, Roger’s 61 became the crown jewel of baseball exploits. Like Ruth’s 60 it too became the holy grail for every big bopper in the game.
Ever since Yankee GM Ed Barrow snatched the Babe away from Boston in 1919, fans have thrilled at power-ball: goodbye spitters, dead-ball hitters and “Hit ‘em where they ain‘t” (Keeler),..hello lively ball, home run call and “Holy cow, he did it!” (Rizzuto).
If the stars aligned, both marks did invite some serious challenges: Foxx (58 / ‘32); Wilson (56 / ‘30); Greenberg (58 / ’38); Kiner (54 / ‘49); Griffey (56 / ‘97).
But it was that possibility which made the 61 enticing (and easy prey) for PED users. Juicers blew by the iconic record like it didn‘t even exist as fans and media went ga-ga over the Mark & Sammy show. The hypocrites could fill every stadium on the continent.
Baseball’s governors have themselves a real sticky-wicket: what to do about the Elias record book and Mr. Bonds’ tainted tally of 73?
Not generally known as bold-decision makers, Mr. Selig & friends will likely go on with the do-nothing approach. Regardless, Roger’s fabled 61 will never regain its former luster.
As such, Cub Hack Wilson’s mind-boggling RBI total of 191 (1930) has now become the new standard for single-season prowess, the new benchmark for baseball immortality.
Funny thing is, nobody knows it’s the new standard: not players, not fans, not the press.
Had he painted his masterpiece with the Yanks or John McGraw’s Giants, Gotham City scribes would’ve immortalized the fantastic feat in poetry and prose. As it stands, the media mecca of America will never pay homage to a record set by a Second City sultan.
Another reason Hack‘s mark is anonymous: so few have ever come close to matching it: Gehrig (184 / ‘31); Greenberg (183 / ‘37); Foxx (175 / ‘38). Even with advantages like DH (AL), body armor, night sky, 162 games, cortisone and lower mound, 153 (Davis / ’62) and 165 (Ramirez / ’99) are the closest anyone’s managed to get to the 191 in 50 years.
RBIs need two things: base-runners and a team-mentality.
Ruth ushered in homer-ball in the 1920s but those guys never forgot the real purpose of batting: score runs! Today’s Home Run Derby mindset sneers at on-base %. And then when the table is set, most batters and too many managers are fixated on going yard.
There is one more advantage the current player has over his ancestors that may help him best Hack’s 191: their single-minded, ambition to break records and join milestone clubs.
Given today’s ravenous appetite for home runs, Hacks outrageous RBI mark should remain unchallenged for the foreseeable future. That’s a good thing. Though, if Texas’ Josh Hamilton could ever stay healthy an entire season he might make it interesting.
Wilson’s record is a fitting reminder of a long lost era: before there was walk-off bunny-hop hysteria; before nighttime World Series put fans to sleep and a when the only records players cared about were the ones spinning on the RCA Victrola.